How strong is tenure?

I remember being told to always suck up to my profesor’s since they held my future in their hands. None of them had tenure but I always wondered, if a profesor were to be unfair or do an extremely unsatisfactory job while having tenure, could they still be fired? I imagine tenure couldn’t protect a profesor in every situation. I was under the impression tenure was designed to protect their jobs in situations like layoffs.

Actually you’ve got it just about backwards. One of the only ways to get rid of tenured faculty is by “financial exigency” i.e. the school or program is losing money. I have seen tenured professors get away with unbelievible bs. Poor teaching is the least of the crap they get away with. The worst profs seem to have a lawyer on retainer that they sic on the school whenever they are caught out. In my experience the school always backs down.

I’ve got a rather interesting story about the only tenured professor I remember getting the boot when I was in college. He was pretty incompetant - taught the course out of a textbook that he’d written and couldn’t find a publisher for because it was such an aweful piece of work. He had the worst case of chronic tardiness of anyone in the classroom, usually showing up 15 minutes late. And rumors were circulating that he wouldn’t bother giving out course evaluations.

Well, one day the professor didn’t show up for class at all. One of the students walked down to the department head’s office and returned with a set of course evaluation forms and passed them out, then returned them. There were probably some pretty poisonous things in them.

About two semesters later, he was gone. Bad course evaluations wouldn’t normally get a tenured professor dismissed. However, it appears that he had handed in a second set of course evaluations… with comments so glowing that even most of our competant professors weren’t rated that highly. The department head gave him two choices - either resign promptly, or give everyone a thorough explanation of why there were two sets of course evaluation forms and the students all reported they had only seen one of them.

And just to clarify, Mrs. Kunilou (a public school teacher, not a professor) was laid off twice AFTER she had received tenure. She was recalled each time when teacher loads were readjusted. But she knows others who weren’t.

There are three typical grounds for terminating tenured faculty. Two have been mentioned.

  1. Financial exigency. The state cuts the college’s budget 10% several years in a row. The non-tenured people are all gone. Now it’s the tenured people’s turn. Usually there are rules about who is to go first and such, based on seniority and all. The AAUP has some standard template for this which most schools more or less go by whether the faculty are in AAUP or not.

  2. Gross misbehavior. Not doing your assigned work, doing something illegal or unethical, or some such. Usually very hard to do against a stubborn prof. A place I once worked at years ago had a prof that was “overly friendly against their permission” with coeds. He was also involved in a couple physical threat cases against male students. That was a long time ago. He’s still there.

Note that being a lousy teacher is not considered a bad thing in the least at research institutions. What counts is bringing in money. As a result, the upper faculty that approve tenure decisions are horrible teachers (and know it). They think that profs with good teaching reviews are lousy teachers (“easy A”) and they take revenge. At two of the colleges I worked at the teaching award was considered the “kiss of death award”. I never knew anyone personally who got the award and wasn’t denied tenure within a year or two. In at least 3 cases, it was bang-bang: award, no tenure, bye-bye.

  1. Not mentioned yet: Elimination of program or department. Sometimes related to case 1, sometimes not. If a college decides they no longer need a religon department, those folks can be sent packing. The nicer places try to find alternative positions in other departments, but usually that is not the case.

If a college really wants to get rid of a particular tenured prof, there are ways of making the prof’s life miserable. Lousy courses (the “101s”) at lousy times. No pay raises. Moving their “office” into the basement (shades of “Office Space”), etc.

Isaac Asimov was a tenured prof at BU with a dean that hated him. The dean pretty much won. He retained title only and his only obligation to the school was to give an occasional guest lecture.

Often, like titanium.

The “kiss of death” reminds me of undergrad advisor. Never bothered to meet him until halfway through my senior year to get some form signed. He wasn’t in, but there were three papers taped to his door.

  1. A letter from the department stating that as of the end of the semester his services would no longer be required (he was not yet tenured, though I think this was the result of his attempt).

  2. A letter from the college dated two weeks later congratulating him on winning the outstanding instructor award two years running.

  3. A hand written note stating that he would no longer be holding office hours and a number you could contact him at.

Seems to corraborate your observation.